Elder Brown leaned over the little pine picket which divided the bookkeepers' department of a Macon warehouse from the room in general, and surveyed the well-dressed back of a gentleman who was busily figuring at a desk within. The apartment was carpetless, and the dust of a decade lay deep on the old books, shelves, and the familiar advertisements of guano and fertilizers which decorated the room. An old stove, rusty with the nicotine contributed by farmers during the previous season while waiting by its glowing sides for their cotton to be sold, stood straight up in a bed of sand, and festoons of cobwebs clung to the upper sashes of the murky windows. The lower sash of one window had been raised, and in the yard without, nearly an acre in extent, lay a few bales of cotton, with jagged holes in their ends, just as the sampler had left them. Elder Brown had time to notice all these familiar points, for the figure at the desk kept serenely at its task, and deigned no reply.
"Good-mornin', sir," said Elder Brown again, in his most dignified tones. "Is Mr. Thomas in?"
"Good-morning, sir," said the figure. "I'll wait on you in a minute."
The minute passed, and four more joined it. Then the desk man turned.
"Well, sir, what can I do for you?"
The elder was not in the best of humor when he arrived, and his state of mind had not improved. He waited full a minute as he surveyed the man of business.
"I thought I mout be able to make some arrangements with you to git some money, but I reckon I was mistaken." The warehouse man came nearer.
"This is Mr. Brown, I believe. I did not recognize you at once. You are not in often to see us."
"No; my wife usually 'tends to the town bizness, while I run the church and farm. Got a fall from my donkey this morning," he said, noticing a quizzical, interrogating look upon the face before him, "and fell squar' on the hat." He made a pretense of smoothing it. The man of business had already lost interest.
"How much money will you want, Mr. Brown?"
"Well, about seven hundred dollars," said the elder, replacing his hat, and turning a furtive look upon the warehouse man. The other was tapping with his pencil upon the little shelf lying across the rail.
"I can get you five hundred."
"But I oughter have seven."
"Can't arrange for that amount. Wait till later in the season, and come again. Money is very tight now. How much cotton will you raise?"
"Well, I count on a hundr'd bales. An' you can't git the sev'n hundr'd dollars?"
"Like to oblige you, but can't right now; will fix it for you later on."
"Well," said the elder, slowly, "fix up the papers for five, an' I'll make it go as far as possible."
The papers were drawn. A note was made out for $552.50, for the interest was at one and a half per cent. for seven months, and a mortgage on ten mules belonging to the elder was drawn and signed. The elder then promised to send his cotton to the warehouse to be sold in the fall, and with a curt "Anything else?" and a "Thankee, that's all," the two parted.
Elder Brown now made an effort to recall the supplemental commissions shouted to him upon his departure, intending to execute them first, and then take his written list item by item. His mental resolves had just reached this point when a new thought made itself known. Passersby were puzzled to see the old man suddenly snatch his headpiece off and peer with an intent and awestruck air into its irregular caverns. Some of them were shocked when he suddenly and vigorously ejaculated:
"Hannah-Maria-Jemimy! goldarn an' blue blazes!"
He had suddenly remembered having placed his memoranda in that hat, and as he studied its empty depths his mind pictured the important scrap fluttering along the sandy scene of his early-morning tumble. It was this that caused him to graze an oath with less margin that he had allowed himself in twenty years. What would the old lady say?
Alas! Elder Brown knew too well. What she would not say was what puzzled him. But as he stood bareheaded in the sunlight a sense of utter desolation came and dwelt with him. His eye rested upon sleeping Balaam anchored to a post in the street, and so as he recalled the treachery that lay at the base of all his affliction, gloom was added to the desolation.
To turn back and search for the lost paper would have been worse than useless. Only one course was open to him, and at it went the leader of his people. He called at the grocery; he invaded the recesses of the dry-goods establishments; he ransacked the hardware stores; and wherever he went he made life a burden for the clerks, overhauling show-cases and pulling down whole shelves of stock. Occasionally an item of his memoranda would come to light, and thrusting his hand into his capacious pocket, where lay the proceeds of his check, he would pay for it upon the spot, and insist upon having it rolled up. To the suggestion of the slave whom he had in charge for the time being that the articles be laid aside until he had finished, he would not listen.
"Now you look here, sonny," he said, in the dry-goods store, "I'm conducting this revival, an' I don't need no help in my line. Just you tie them stockin's up an' lemme have 'em. Then I know I've got 'em." As each purchase was promptly paid for, and change had to be secured, the clerk earned his salary for that day at least.
So it was when, near the heat of the day, the good man arrived at the drugstore, the last and only unvisited division of trade, he made his appearance equipped with half a hundred packages, which nestled in his arms and bulged out about the sections of his clothing that boasted of pockets. As he deposited his deck-load upon the counter, great drops of perspiration rolled down his face and over his waterlogged collar to the floor.
There was something exquisitely refreshing in the great glasses of foaming soda that a spruce young man was drawing from a marble fountain, above which half a dozen polar bears in an ambitious print were disporting themselves. There came a break in the run of customers, and the spruce young man, having swept the foam from the marble, dexterously lifted a glass from the revolving rack which had rinsed it with a fierce little stream of water, and asked mechanically, as he caught the intense look of the perspiring elder, "What syrup, sir?"
Now it had not occurred to the elder to drink soda, but the suggestion, coming as it did in his exhausted state, was overpowering. He drew near awkwardly, put on his glasses, and examined the list of syrups with great care. The young man, being for the moment at leisure, surveyed critically the gaunt figure, the faded bandanna, the antique clawhammer coat, and the battered stove-pipe hat, with a gradually relaxing countenance. He even called the prescription clerk's attention by a cough and a quick jerk of the thumb. The prescription clerk smiled freely, and continued his assaults upon a piece of blue mass.
"I reckon," said the elder, resting his hands upon his knees and bending down to the list, "you may gimme sassprilla an' a little strawberry. Sassprilla's good for the blood this time er year, an' strawberry's good any time."
The spruce young man let the syrup stream into the glass as he smiled affably. Thinking, perhaps, to draw out the odd character, he ventured upon a jest himself, repeating a pun invented by the man who made the first soda fountain. With a sweep of his arm he cleared away the swarm of insects as he remarked, "People who like a fly in theirs are easily accommodated."
It was from sheer good-nature only that Elder Brown replied, with his usual broad, social smile, "Well, a fly now an' then don't hurt nobody."
Now if there is anybody in the world who prides himself on knowing a thing or two, it is the spruce young man who presides over a soda fountain. This particular young gentleman did not even deem a reply necessary. He vanished an instant, and when he returned a close observer might have seen that the mixture in the glass he bore had slightly changed color and increased in quantity. But the elder saw only the whizzing stream of water dart into its center, and the rosy foam rise and tremble on the glass's rim. The next instant he was holding his breath and sipping the cooling drink.
As Elder Brown paid his small score he was at peace with the world. I firmly believe that when he had finished his trading, and the little blue-stringed packages had been stored away, could the poor donkey have made his appearance at the door, and gazed with his meek, fawnlike eyes into his master's, he would have obtained full and free forgiveness.
Elder Brown paused at the door as he was about to leave. A rosy-cheeked school-girl was just lifting a creamy mixture to her lips before the fountain. It was a pretty picture, and he turned back, resolved to indulge in one more glass of the delightful beverage before beginning his long ride homeward.
"Fix it up again, sonny," he said, renewing his broad, confiding smile, as the spruce young man poised a glass inquiringly. The living automaton went through the same motions as before, and again Elder Brown quaffed the fatal mixture.
What a singular power is habit! Up to this time Elder Brown had been entirely innocent of transgression, but with the old alcoholic fire in his veins, twenty years dropped from his shoulders, and a feeling came over him familiar to every man who has been "in his cups." As a matter of fact, the elder would have been a confirmed drunkard twenty years before had his wife been less strong-minded. She took the reins into her own hands when she found that his business and strong drink did not mix well, worked him into the church, sustained his resolutions by making it difficult and dangerous for him to get to his toddy. She became the business head of the family, and he the spiritual. Only at rare intervals did he ever "backslide" during the twenty years of the new era, and Mrs. Brown herself used to say that the "sugar in his'n turned to gall before the backslide ended." People who knew her never doubted it.
But Elder Brown's sin during the remainder of the day contained an element of responsibility. As he moved majestically down toward where Balaam slept in the sunlight, he felt no fatigue. There was a glow upon his cheek-bones, and a faint tinge upon his prominent nose. He nodded familiarly to people as he met them, and saw not the look of amusement which succeeded astonishment upon the various faces. When he reached the neighborhood of Balaam it suddenly occurred to him that he might have forgotten some one of his numerous commissions, and he paused to think. Then a brilliant idea rose in his mind. He would forestall blame and disarm anger with kindness—he would purchase Hannah a bonnet.
What woman's heart ever failed to soften at sight of a new bonnet?
As I have stated, the elder was a man of action. He entered a store near at hand.
"Good-morning," said an affable gentleman with a Hebrew countenance, approaching.
"Good-mornin', good-mornin'," said the elder, piling his bundles on the counter. "I hope you are well?" Elder Brown extended his hand fervidly.
"Quite well, I thank you. What—"
"And the little wife?" said Elder Brown, affectionately retaining the
"Quite well, sir."
"And the little ones—quite well, I hope, too?"
"Yes, sir; all well, thank you. Something I can do for you?"
The affable merchant was trying to recall his customer's name.
"Not now, not now, thankee. If you please to let my bundles stay untell I come back—"
"Can't I show you something? Hat, coat—"
"Not now. Be back bimeby."
Was it chance or fate that brought Elder Brown in front of a bar? The glasses shone bright upon the shelves as the swinging door flapped back to let out a coatless clerk, who passed him with a rush, chewing upon a farewell mouthful of brown bread and bologna. Elder Brown beheld for an instant the familiar scene within. The screws of his resolution had been loosened. At sight of the glistening bar the whole moral structure of twenty years came tumbling down. Mechanically he entered the saloon, and laid a silver quarter upon the bar as he said:
"A little whiskey an' sugar." The arms of the bartender worked like a faker's in a side show as he set out the glass with its little quota of "short sweetening" and a cut-glass decanter, and sent a half-tumbler of water spinning along from the upper end of the bar with a dime in change.
"Whiskey is higher'n used to be," said Elder Brown; but the bartender was taking another order, and did not hear him. Elder Brown stirred away the sugar, and let a steady stream of red liquid flow into the glass. He swallowed the drink as unconcernedly as though his morning tod had never been suspended, and pocketed the change. "But it ain't any better than it was," he concluded, as he passed out. He did not even seem to realize that he had done anything extraordinary.
There was a millinery store up the street, and thither with uncertain step he wended his way, feeling a little more elate, and altogether sociable. A pretty, black-eyed girl, struggling to keep down her mirth, came forward and faced him behind the counter. Elder Brown lifted his faded hat with the politeness, if not the grace, of a Castilian, and made a sweeping bow. Again he was in his element. But he did not speak. A shower of odds and ends, small packages, thread, needles, and buttons, released from their prison, rattled down about him.
The girl laughed. She could not help it. And the elder, leaning his hand on the counter, laughed, too, until several other girls came half-way to the front. Then they, hiding behind counters and suspended cloaks, laughed and snickered until they reconvulsed the elder's vis-à-vis, who had been making desperate efforts to resume her demure appearance.
"Let me help you, sir," she said, coming from behind the counter, upon seeing Elder Brown beginning to adjust his spectacles for a search. He waved her back majestically. "No, my dear, no; can't allow it. You mout sile them purty fingers. No, ma'am. No gen'l'man'll 'low er lady to do such a thing." The elder was gently forcing the girl back to her place. "Leave it to me. I've picked up bigger things 'n them. Picked myself up this mornin'. Balaam—you don't know Balaam; he's my donkey—he tumbled me over his head in the sand this mornin'." And Elder Brown had to resume an upright position until his paroxysm of laughter had passed. "You see this old hat?" extending it, half full of packages; "I fell clear inter it; jes' as clean inter it as them things thar fell out'n it." He laughed again, and so did the girls. "But, my dear, I whaled half the hide off'n him for it."
"Oh, sir! how could you? Indeed, sir. I think you did wrong. The poor brute did not know what he was doing, I dare say, and probably he has been a faithful friend." The girl cast her mischievous eyes towards her companions, who snickered again. The old man was not conscious of the sarcasm. He only saw reproach. His face straightened, and he regarded the girl soberly.
"Mebbe you're right, my dear; mebbe I oughtn't."
"I am sure of it," said the girl. "But now don't you want to buy a bonnet or a cloak to carry home to your wife?"
"Well, you're whistlin' now, birdie; that's my intention; set 'em all out." Again the elder's face shone with delight. "An' I don't want no one-hoss bonnet neither."
"Of course not. Now here is one; pink silk, with delicate pale blue feathers. Just the thing for the season. We have nothing more elegant in stock." Elder Brown held it out, upside down, at arm's-length.
"Well, now, that's suthin' like. Will it soot a sorter redheaded 'ooman?"
A perfectly sober man would have said the girl's corsets must have undergone a terrible strain, but the elder did not notice her dumb convulsion. She answered, heroically:
"Perfectly, sir. It is an exquisite match."
"I think you're whistlin' again. Nancy's head's red, red as a woodpeck's. Sorrel's only half-way to the color of her top-knot, an' it do seem like red oughter to soot red. Nancy's red an' the hat's red; like goes with like, an' birds of a feather flock together." The old man laughed until his cheeks were wet.
The girl, beginning to feel a little uneasy, and seeing a customer entering, rapidly fixed up the bonnet, took fifteen dollars out of a twenty-dollar bill, and calmly asked the elder if he wanted anything else. He thrust his change somewhere into his clothes, and beat a retreat. It had occurred to him that he was nearly drunk.
Elder Brown's step began to lose its buoyancy. He found himself utterly unable to walk straight. There was an uncertain straddle in his gait that carried him from one side of the walk to the other, and caused people whom he met to cheerfully yield him plenty of room.
Balaam saw him coming. Poor Balaam. He had made an early start that day, and for hours he stood in the sun awaiting relief. When he opened his sleepy eyes and raised his expressive ears to a position of attention, the old familiar coat and battered hat of the elder were before him. He lifted up his honest voice and cried aloud for joy.
The effect was electrical for one instant. Elder Brown surveyed the beast with horror, but again in his understanding there rang out the trumpet words.
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, -er-unc, -unc, -unc."
He stooped instinctively for a missile with which to smite his accuser, but brought up suddenly with a jerk and a handful of sand. Straightening himself up with a majestic dignity, he extended his right hand impressively.
"You're a goldarn liar, Balaam, and, blast your old buttons, you kin walk home by yourself, for I'm danged if you sh'll ride me er step."
Surely Coriolanus never turned his back upon Rome with a grander dignity than sat upon the old man's form as he faced about and left the brute to survey with anxious eyes the new departure of his master.
He saw the elder zigzag along the street, and beheld him about to turn a friendly corner. Once more he lifted up his mighty voice:
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, drer-unc, -erunc, -unc, -unc."
Once more the elder turned with lifted hand and shouted back:
"You're a liar, Balaam, goldarn you! You're er iffamous liar." Then he passed from view.
Click Here for Part III
Elder Brown's Backslide
A Classic Funny Story
Harry Stillwell Edwards